Running Outside the Comfort Zone: Empire State Building Run-Up

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Running offers much more than road racing. In Running Outside the Comfort Zone, sports columnist Susan Lacke explores running in its many shapes and forms, taking on running challenges that scare her, push her, and downright embarrass her.

Enjoy this chapter from Susan’s new book!

Chapter 6

A Helluva Race in a Helluva Town

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RIDING AN ELEVATOR TO THE TOP of China’s Shanghai Tower, 128 stories high, takes approximately 40 seconds via a technological marvel noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest elevator in the world. But Suzy Walsham of Australia would rather take the stairs—all 3,398 of them. It’s not that much slower, after all; running the Shanghai Tower took her only 20 minutes and 44 seconds, a performance that contributes to her top standing in the Towerrunning World Association.

Suzy, who entered (and won) her first “vertical marathon” in 2006, has dominated most of the 90 stair races she’s entered since then. The sport, which involves sprinting up the stairwells of the world’s tallest towers, has helped her become more fit in other forms of racing as well.

“I did 17:05 for 5K and 36:39 for 10K races last year,” says the 44-year-old. “Tower running has improved the strength and power in my legs, and I think mentally I am stronger, too, because tower running events are so tough.” Running on flat surfaces feels, well, pretty easy after scaling buildings, she says with a grin.

I was interviewing Suzy ahead of the Empire State Building Run-Up, the ultimate uphill race that doesn’t feature a single hill. Once a year, the 102-story New York City skyscraper closes to the public at 8:00 p.m. to give 500 runners the chance to climb one of the world’s most recognizable buildings.

“Are there any secrets you can tell me about doing the race?” I asked Suzy.

She hesitated for a moment and then laughed. “The first time is special. I wouldn’t ruin it for you.”

In general, I don’t take the stairs. I am strictly an elevator gal. Ask anyone with asthma, and they’ll likely tell you the same—even just one flight can set off a bout of coughing and wheezing that can last for hours. This can be pretty embarrassing, especially if you find yourself forced to take the stairs with your

colleagues, who note your heavy panting with a puzzled look: “I thought you, like, ran marathons and stuff.”

Now take that and multiply it by 86—that was the feat ahead of me at the Empire State Building Run-Up. Eighty-six flights, 1,586 individual stairs, 1,050 vertical feet—no matter how you cut it, the race looked like a whole lotta inhaler puffs.

But, as it turned out, it wasn’t the race that took my breath away. I’m used to asthma attacks during races. I’m even used to those attacks starting just before races, when my nerves kick in. But I had never experienced an asthma attack as a direct result of the man of my dreams standing next to me.

(Before I continue, let me apologize to my husband. I swear, darling, you run a very close second.)

It happened in the lobby of the Empire State Building, five minutes before I was to run up all those stairs to the observation deck on top. Standing next to me was Patrick Wilson, star of Broadway, movies, and 99 percent of my sexual fantasies. (You know what, honey? Maybe just skip ahead to the next chapter.)

I didn’t know it was him at first. At the time, my mind was solely on the nerve-wracking feat that lay just ahead of me. My wave was one of the first to go, following the elite racers (which included Walsham, who went on to take her ninth consecutive victory in an astonishing 12 minutes and 56 seconds). I had been assigned to the “media” wave, made up mostly of indignant sports journalists whose managers thought sending a former linebacker named “Champ” to the race would make a good puff piece on the 11 o’clock news. As we milled about the start line, watching the countdown clock tick back from five minutes, another sports bro squeezed into the empty space next to me.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I nodded in acknowledgment. And then I saw those eyes, and all at once my brain flooded: Holy shit, this isn’t a sports bro. This is Patrick Wilson.

“How’s it going?” he said with a smile.

I stared. “Fine,” I gawked. Holy shit, Patrick Wilson is smiling at me. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, holyshitholyshitholyshit.

As it turned out, the “media” wave was actually the “media and celebrity” wave. I don’t know why they would put those two populations together, because in general, media folks tend to be some of the most awkward individuals on the planet. Exhibit A: me, trying to play it cool as I patted my hip pocket to locate my inhaler, because Patrick Wilson is smiling at me, and I can’t breathe.

I tried to say, “It’s going great!” but all that came out was a cough, followed by a few quick gasps for breath.

“You okay?” he asked. Patrick Wilson wants to know if I’m okay. Patrick Wilson cares about me. Patrick Wilson is in love with me. BE COOL, DAMMIT.

I snapped out of my gawk, blinking my eyes rapidly. “Yeah, I’m good. How are you?”

He smiled again and gave me the most adorable thumbs-up. I tried to keep from melting into a puddle on the floor. An awkward silence followed as the clock ticked down: three minutes to start.

“Have you done this race before?” he asked.

“No. Have you?”

“Yes. I’m trying to beat my time from last year.”

More awkward silence. Patrick Wilson looked away for a moment, and I seized the opportunity to take a hit off my asthma inhaler, hoping he wouldn’t notice. But instead of making the quick poof sound it was supposed to, the apparatus whistled loudly as I took the medicine into my lungs, causing the man of my dreams to turn back in my direction.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Totally,” I squeaked. Why is my voice so high pitched? I SAID, BE COOL, DAMMIT.

With two minutes to go, Patrick Wilson offered up the lessons he learned last year: ease into it, take the stairs two at a time, and use the handrail to pull yourself up. I managed to stutter out a joke that my only goal for the race was to not die.

“You’re going to do great,” he said, giving me a pat on the back. Patrick Wilson touched me because he is in love with me. BE COOL. Also, INHALE, YOU DUMBASS.

I stifled an asthmatic cough and wondered what would happen if I passed out right there. Would Patrick Wilson perform CPR on me? I ran my tongue along my teeth, trying to determine if I had the adequate hygiene for sucking face with Patrick Wilson. Had I brushed my teeth after dinner? I couldn’t remember. I wished they made a mint-flavored asthma inhaler for occasions like these.

“Ten, nine, . . . ,” the announcer boomed.

“Good luck,” Patrick Wilson smiled. I didn’t even notice when the air horn blew, marking the start of the race. I was too busy naming our future children and/or rescue dogs.

RUN, YOU DUMBASS. I took off through the black-andgold art deco lobby of the Empire State Building, following the directions of the guards in their iconic burgundy suits.

I knew running up 86 flights of stairs would be a unique challenge in and of itself. Unlike the ski jump of the Red Bull 400, which featured a 35-degree incline, the stairs of the Empire State Building were an even steeper 65 degrees. (For comparison, Filbert Street, one of San Francisco’s steepest roads, is a mere 17.5 degrees, and the Boston Marathon’s legendary Heartbreak Hill is a paltry 4.5 degrees.) But what I didn’t know was that the environment added another layer of difficulty. For some reason, I had assumed the stairwell would be just as opulent as the Empire State Building, with tiled floors, gold-plated rails, and climate control. And that was the case for the first two floors, until a burgundy suit opened a fire exit and motioned for me to enter.

No one warned me that the stairwell of the Empire State Building is opened only a few times a year. Once in a while, the New York City Fire Department cracks the doors for a fire drill; otherwise, the race is the only time the stairs see any action. As a result, it’s hot, stuffy, and dusty. By the 10th story, my mouth was dry. By the 20th, I had shifted from a jog up the stairs to more of a lunge, taking the stairs two at a time.

Because the race is in the fire exit stairwell, there are no spectators, save for a burgundy-clad guard every five flights who makes the same joke: “Should’ve taken the elevator. It’s faster.” If you wanted to bail out on these floors, you got the sense the guards wouldn’t let that happen. You made your idiot bed, now lie in it.

By the 40th floor, I had lost count of where I was. By the 50th, a familiar taste coated my tongue. Metal, I thought. I’m dying again. By the 65th, my legs were pillars of lime gelatin.

“Should’ve taken the elevator,” a burgundy suit chortled once again. “It’s faster.” But before I had a chance to give him my best sarcastic chortle, a door swung open, hitting me with a whoosh of cold, invigorating fresh air.

That’s another thing no one had told me about the Empire State Building Run-Up: Before you cross the finish line, the course follows a victory lap around the observation deck. Though I was in a race against the clock (and 499 other runners), I deliberately slowed to take it all in. I had never been to the top of the Empire State Building before, much less at nighttime, when I could see the vast expanse of New York City twinkling below in all her big-city glitz and glamour.

It was a cold February night, and the wind swirled around me as steam radiated off my body. For the first time that evening, I stopped to take a deep breath. Is this really happening? I laughed as I jogged toward the finish line. This was all just too cool.

“Hey! You didn’t die!” Patrick Wilson was sitting on the floor just past the finish line, still panting from his own race as he waved me in for a high five. Even with a bright red face and a shirt soaked with sweat, he was still hella dreamy.

For 20 minutes of my time (and two days of post-race muscle soreness), I received a nifty art deco medal saying I had finished the Empire State Building Run-Up. But that wasn’t the reward—that came far before the finish line.

As runners, we tend to think in exchanges and zero sum games: If I finish this race, I get a medal. If I run 10 miles today, I’ll have earned this burger. I have to hit these splits, otherwise, I failed. But sometimes, the things we get out of a run are far more abstract than a piece of tin to wear around our neck or a set of numbers on a stopwatch. A run can take us to places and people we would otherwise never have the opportunity to encounter.

Truth be told, I lost my Empire State medal shortly after finishing the race. I think I forgot to pack it in my luggage when I left New York City. But that’s okay—anytime someone mentions New York City, I’m quick to share that time I ran to the top of the Empire State Building. It’s always a hit; my “Free Bird” at parties and meetings, if you will. I pull that anecdote out far more often than I would a race medal. Also, I finally have a good retort for when my colleagues give me grief for getting winded on the stairs.

And every time I pull out my asthma inhaler, I get the best reward of all: a fleeting reminder of my hot, breathless encounter* in an Empire State Building stairwell with that dreamboat, Patrick Wilson.

* That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.†

† Sorry, honey.

Running offers much more than road racing. In Running Outside the Comfort Zone, sports columnist Susan Lacke explores running in its many shapes and forms, taking on running challenges that scare her, push her, and downright embarrass her.